Allbirds, Vejas, Common Projects: The Definitive Ranking of Silicon Valley Shoes
This article is part of Into the Valley, a feature series from OneZero about Silicon Valley, the people who live there, and the technology they create.
The stereotype about fashion in Silicon Valley is that tech employees are schlubby beyond repair, dressed at all times in startup T-shirts and hoodies and jeans — that the Patagonia fleece vests beloved by venture capitalists are as close to a suit as you’ll find in the Bay Area. Tech workers are, allegedly, the most boring dressers on earth, unless they’re Jack Dorsey, in which case they occasionally look like high-fashion moon men.
And yet onlookers like myself are obsessed. We want to understand what makes a guy with the outsize cultural, economic, and political influence of Mark Zuckerberg pick a plain gray T-shirt as his uniform. It might be the most obvious way to try and decipher the people who make the products that run and ruin our lives.
If you want to analyze Silicon Valley fashion, a fruitful place to start is footwear. Certain shoe brands have reached levels of undeniable ubiquity in tech offices — famously so in the case of Allbirds, the gentle-looking wool sneakers that became a favorite of tech executives and their underlings several years ago. It’s not surprising that lifestyle trends take root with such force in Silicon Valley: Its strong culture of early adoption means that tech workers want the latest and greatest, including when it comes to business casual sneakers.
As one software engineer who lives in San Francisco explains it: “Tech is all about the new. You don’t want to be dated. You don’t want to admit that you don’t have fiber internet.”
So what do the shoes of Silicon Valley say about a person? Here’s a not-at-all scientific nor comprehensive survey of the matter, explained by their critics and fans.
Though the brand now sells models called “Breezers,” “Loungers,” “Skippers,” and “Toppers” — some of them made from tree bark and sugarcane — Allbirds first drew attention for its wool “Runners,” a pliable, unadorned sneaker that comes in evocative colorways like “Savanna Dawn” (a rosy lavender), “Tuke Matcha” (a muted gray-green), and “Malibu” (a creamsicle with white soles). The Allbirds sneaker’s most prominent design feature is its cartoonishly large shoelace holes. Jackie Luo, a software engineer who recently left San Francisco, describes them as “friendly and harmless and neutral and super functional” — all softness and rounded edges, like the sans serif fonts used to sell newfangled toothbrushes and mattresses, or like the felt furniture you find in startup offices. (Luo isn’t a fan.) “Allbirds might be the closest the world of everyday fashion has come to embracing contemporary luxury’s ideal of optimized efficiency,” writes Rachel Syme in a New Yorker piece titled “The Algorithmic Emptiness of Allbirds Shoes.”
Allbirds cater to tech workers who are interested in taking their aesthetic game up a notch while maintaining the high level of comfort that undergirds Silicon Valley fashion. Chris Makarsky, a product manager, explains that if the bottom rung of the local sneaker hierarchy is occupied by clunky running shoes — the kind that you’d pick up in a sporting goods store, not because you like their neon color scheme but because there’s a pair available in your size — then Allbirds sit a tier above. They’re not outrageously expensive ($135 and under), and while they’re not the most fashionable thing in the world, they’re classier than their more athletic peers. These are for the engineer who wants to show that they’re hip or knows that they ought to be wearing something better than running shoes, Makarsky says.
“It’s not an ugly shoe that’s not cool — it’s an ugly shoe that’s cool.”
The French brand Veja cites “transparency,” “fair trade sourcing,” and “organic materials” as selling points, but its sub-$200 sneakers also bring to the table a tasteful, streamlined sensibility. White sneakers have been trending in fashion for the better part of a decade, led by the Adidas Stan Smith, and Veja sneakers align perfectly with this movement. Though they come in a variety of colors, the version you’re most likely to see on the street has a white body and a slanted V on the side in shades like white, black, red, or blush. Everyone at The Strategist is wearing them. Meghan Markle wears them. And so do tech types.
Andrés Barraza, a technical writer, says that he sees a lot of clean, simple fashion in San Francisco — lots of monochromatic sneakers and wardrobe basics in solid shades of gray or black (and more recently, muddy hues like rust red, olive green, and deep mustard) that can be mixed and matched with peerless ease and efficiency. Vejas, which go with basically anything and are slightly dressier than Allbirds, are exactly the kind of shoe that can be slotted into this rotation. But it’s not just that they appeal to those who admire (but may not want to replicate) Steve Jobs’s uniform of black turtlenecks and New Balance sneakers: With their message of ethics and sustainability, as well as their general stylishness, Vejas are a shoe that appeals to just about anybody.
If a tech worker continued climbing the sneaker food chain, they might find themselves mulling a pair of Common Projects, which might be mistaken for a pair of Stan Smiths or Vejas at a great distance. Not up close, though. Identifiable by a series of gold numbers stamped along the heel, Common Projects are blindingly minimalist and, at upwards of $400, something of a status symbol. These are for the denizens of Silicon Valley who are A) designers; or B) making serious money and are ready to invest in serious work sneakers.
Victoria Hitchcock, a fashion and lifestyle consultant who regularly works with Silicon Valley executives, says that she has recommended them “probably over 100 times.” Her clients often like wearing comfortable shoes already — three to five years ago, she’d see a lot of Merrell, Toms, and Tevas in their closets. (Unwilling to criticize anyone’s style, Hitchcock deems these “less-than-fascinating” choices.) She likes Common Projects because they’re subtle and streamlined, with an elevated, more European look.
Makarsky wears Common Projects because he has a preference for simple, white sneakers and, at 37, doesn’t want to give the impression that he’s a recent college graduate. It’s fashion as a tool to meet and even enhance people’s expectations of you in the workplace.
After climbing the ladder of sneakers, let us now sidestep into business casual flats for women. More specifically, into a pair of Rothy’s, the machine-washable flats that come in a frankly exhilarating array of colors and have amassed a passionate online fandom. Like Allbirds, Rothy’s is based in San Francisco and offers a feel-good sustainability message: They’re made of recycled plastic via 3D knitting technology, which reduces waste by only using the amount of thread needed for each shoe.
Rothy’s appeal to those with a deeply practical streak, thanks to their washability and comfort. Indeed, the brand’s biggest market in terms of revenue per capita is San Francisco, a place where people are constantly biking, scooting, and hiking up urban hills. (“There are very few stilettos here,” notes Elie Donahue, the SVP of marketing at Rothy’s.) Freia Lobo, a product manager who left San Francisco in August after two years in the city and now lives in New York, spent a while wearing Rothy’s every day, chiefly because they were so comfortable. After 18 months of routine use, she found that they weren’t holding up and had started to get smelly, even after washing, so she phased them out.
Lobo has lived at almost every tier of the Silicon Valley shoe spectrum. She describes herself as someone who doesn’t care about fashion — she wants to look good without having to put in too much effort. When she thinks about her own footwear collection, which also includes Allbirds and Vejas, she says cheerfully, “There’s no personal expression of style going into this.” When she does buy something new, it’s often because she’s been getting a lot of Instagram ads for it — as was the case for Rothy’s — and because it looks nice enough.
It’s for this reason that she’s tickled but persuaded, for instance, by brands’ tendency to name their items in the singular: The Flat, The Pant, The Shirt, as though they are the superlative expression of their categories.
“There’s one called ‘The Day Flat,’ and I’m like, I want flats to wear in the day!” Lobo says. “Done. Easy.”